7 Takeaways from the Parsons SDM Program

As I wrap up on my time at Parsons, I reflect back and realize there were so many lessons hidden in this two-year journey. Summarized in a format adored by designers and entrepreneurs alike — motivational quotes! — this article aims to highlight my key takeaways from the Strategic Design & Management program:

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African proverb

A design thinking approach places emphasis on people above all things as the most critical factor to innovation. And in the design process, people take shape in several forms — as employees, consumers, and competitors.

- As we move from a knowledge economy into a more human-focused one, we are becoming more focused on teamwork. When building teams, leaders should aim to drive knowledge sharing and collaboration through multidisciplinary relationships and diverse backgrounds. Designers should aim to develop soft skills that support and strengthen their areas of expertise. Teammates should adopt a “yes and…” mentality when building on the ideas of colleagues. All internal relationships and communications should foster a safe environment for each individual to bring his or her unique gift to the table.

- Gone are the days when consumers bought what they were sold in a purely transactional way. Today, the customer-brand relationship is that of a friendship, demanding mutual respect, constant feedback, openness and collaborative synergies. A relationship of this loyalty deserves to be acknowledged as such; companies should look for opportunities to co-create with customers, and to reward them for participating in open-source, user-centered design.

- Similarly, companies are opening up to the idea of co-creating with competitors, often aligning on values and objectives that ultimately push the entire industry forward — co-opetition is the new competition. For example, after Tesla Motors announced that its company’s electric vehicle patents will be made public, other electric car manufacturers began uniting on goals to standardize electric car chargers across the industry. New design firm leaders should look at ways to collaborate with category competitors in mutualistic, big picture ways.

Even this article was inspired by the wisdom of crowds — thanks to my colleagues Paula Pinto, Ashley Li, Joonas Virtanen, Sarah Kehoe, Jalen Vasquez, Tina Oskooei, Shota Aizawa, Mariela Ferrer, and Sucharita Jyothula for their contributions!

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

One of the biggest struggles for designers is to let go of perfectionism, and to embrace the philosophy that failure is the key to success. Fail harder, better, faster, stronger. Challenging yourself, engaging your stakeholders and testing your concept are critical stages of the journey. You’re going to get negative feedback. You will learn your strengths and weaknesses. Your patience will be tested; your comfort zone will be made uncomfortable. Deal with it; don’t let it stop you. Put yourself (your work) out there. Concepts are great but there’s only value if they’re actionable, executed.

“Write it down on a real paper with a real pencil. And watch shit get real.” — Erykah Badu
 For my entire first semester of grad school, I did all my work on my laptop, as of somehow using technology made me a better design thinker. It wasn’t until I read Dan Roam’s Unfolding the Napkin that I explored visualizing my ideas, drawing them out, shuffling them around, uncovering connections, and playing with them. This is why Post-Its are a universal tool shared by thoughtful designers, strategists and leaders: they know that a picture really does paint a thousand words, and the human brain processes information much more productively and creatively when that information is brought to life visually.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 
— Albert Einstein

Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not novelty; it is often the simple amalgamation of different ideas to create a new one, which is often subtle — the addition of wheels to the suitcase, for example — not every disruption is earth shattering. I personally believe that stripping things down to their essence and keeping things simple are important in solving complex problems.

“Any product that needs a manual to work is broken.” — Elon Musk

We often think of effectively sharing ideas as the definition of communication. This may be true, but it overlooks the power of storytelling — designing an engaging audience experience that communicates a message and excites the imagination. To get a message across, create an immersive experience for your listener, be it your customer, investor, partner or staff.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

Latent needs are hard to uncover. Discovering them requires a lot of patience, intuition and timing; they are, after all, unknown consumer desires. This is where listening more than talking pays off; spending time on the field, observing not what but how it is said, engaging with people — only by diving into the user journey can we string together insights that allow us to improve lives.

Data should drive your decision-making, but it shouldn’t be taken too literally — always assess data from a human perspective. For example, in my master’s thesis project, quantitative research suggested that rates of senior malnutrition increased upon admission into a long-term healthcare facility. However, after spending time on the field, I learned that hospitals don’t cause senior malnutrition; rather, depression and social isolation (combined with physical factors like disease, disability and medication) are at the root of malnutrition — correlation is not causation; there are subtleties in the data that only a human can pick up on.

“We are here to make a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why even be here? We’re creating a completely new consciousness, like an artist or a poet. We are rewriting the history of human thought with what we’re doing.” — Steve Jobs 
I love this quote. We are here to make a dent in the universe. It’s so true. The few hours we have each day to breathe attention into our vision, our life’s work — how do we spend them?

Business ideas should always solve a problem. Make your dent in the universe. From that perspective, leaders must be able to view business as about more than the financial bottom line. Business is about generating value, which can appear in various ways, such as improved consumer perception, reduced problem scenarios, increased activity in the sector, infrastructural upgrades, employee retention, etc.